The Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper is due imminently, although this week has cast doubt on precisely when. However, it is expected to describe the roadmap for local government reform and the conditions to be met for more devolution of power and several new mayoral combined authorities.
Anticipation of the White Paper and speculation about its content is fuelling the debate on local government reform. This is especially true in county areas. The County Councils Network has published a study which concludes that local government would be better served by single county unitary authorities for the county footprints. That comes as no surprise. But the local government sector is split. Some argue that the advantages of dealing with fewer, streamlined authorities makes for faster decision making.
Others say democracy is best served locally, not remotely. Strategic services such as children’s social care may be administered at county hall but in practice today are delivered in localities and that a large bureaucracy is slowing down any improvements.
The anticipation and expectation of devolution, and the dangling of some carrots about funding and extra mayors mean the sector is raged in a debate about structure, numbers of councillors and a few extra powers.
One size doesn’t fit all. The recent Centre for Cities report highlights the challenges in co-ordinating our complicated and fragmented system of local government. It describes cities with economic powers but no control over the housing policy of the places its workers live in. And yet another authority controls the transport that allows workers to travel from their home to those jobs.
It is time to look again at re-drawing boundaries. A county-sized unitary might be the right answer for some places in which it reflects the current economic functional geography. For others, the county line is nothing more than a historic artefact where people will have much more connection with a town over the county border; or with the next coastal town given their shared characteristics than they do with the metropolis dealing with very different demography, or social challenges.
Better strategic alignment paves the way for achieving more, more quickly. To do this requires all councils to be involved to influence, especially when districts are so present in their localities.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good
Debate is healthy. Until paralysis leads to missed opportunities. While some areas are arguing about the merits and demerits of their desired system, those who can find a way to make it work will be getting into the first wave.
And while we aim for consensus, let’s be realistic. Even within districts and towns, people are divided. KPMG is working with think-tank Demos on a joint project looking at the future of towns. This work reveals that there are distinct clusters of populations who have very different hopes and fears for the place they live in. But with the additional investment which may be possible from pooling efforts, perhaps, just perhaps, there is an opportunity to make meaningful change.
Cratus and KPMG have worked with several districts to develop compelling alternative proposals and business cases for change, addressing the challenges collaboratively and credibly.
More can be achieved once all the parties find common purpose – and the detail doesn’t all have to be worked through now. Indeed, structure, boundaries and councillor numbers should not lead the debate.More time should be spent on what you want to do, in creating bespoke proposals which answer unique and fundamental local challenges. That will need imagination as well as experience, creativity as well as challenge.
Five recommendations for areas to consider while creating their plans:
1) Invest time early in agreeing objectives. And while consensus is fantastic, soft agreement using vague language to mask fundamental differences is not helpful.
2) Keep at the highest level you can. This gives you the greatest chance of success. You don’t need infinite detail now.
3) Be distinctive. What is the right strategy for your community with its unique combination of geography, demography and skills?
4) Be clear on what your case is. How will you improve outcomes for citizens? How will you improve democratic representation? How will you achieve clean, inclusive growth? How will you improve financial sustainability?
5) Be swift. The first wave of local government reorganisation is pursuing shadow boards being in place by April 2021.
It is an exciting time to work in the sector. Let’s not waste this important period arguing about detail. Let’s grab the opportunity to secure lasting change for our communities.
Ruth Morgan is head of local government at KPMG and Sean Anstee CBE is executive director for advisory, public affairs and PR at Cratus and former vice chairman of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority